October’s book from Marilyn Monroe’s bookshelf was Mischief, a psychological thriller by Charlotte Armstrong. The novel was adapted into the film Don’t Bother to Knock, starring Marilyn Monroe. This month in addition to reading the book, the book club also had a viewing party of the film. Marilyn Monroe owned a number of books that were adapted to film, and it is certainly possible that she read the books in order to prepare for her roles.
(Spoiler Warning) The story takes place in a hotel, where Nell babysits a young girl. The babysitting job was set up by Nell’s uncle a hotel employee, who thinks that this will be a good experience for his troubled niece. Slowly the audience realizes that Nell is not mentally stable, as she invites a man named Jed (a hotel guest) to her room, and begins to lie. While Jed is with Nell, the child enters from an adjoining room. Jed wants to leave after this, at which point Nell begins to act increasingly erratic. The tension slowly builds, and the audience watches as Nell’s mental state unravels. She nearly pushes the child out of a window and eventually ties her up and gags her, she nearly kills her uncle by striking him on the head, and Jed tries to get out of the increasingly volatile situation. Eventually, the child’s mother Ruth (who has had a bad feeling the whole evening) comes back to the room, to find Nell trying to kill her child. They fight, Ruth wins, and Nell is eventually led away by authorities. Here is a more complete recap of the movie plot, and as this review notes, the real underlying tension of both the movie and the book is the limitation of women’s autonomy (though the book goes into greater depth exploring this). Various women characters in the book have intuition that things are amiss, but are either asked (by men) to ignore their concerns, or convince themselves that they are incorrect.
Marilyn Monroe’s version of Nell is more sympathetic than the version in the book. In the novel Mischief, Jed notes early on that he cannot place Nell’s “type” of woman–which calls into question the very notion of categorizing women into neat stereotypes. This is because in the book, Nell is sociopathic and a compulsive liar, and does not seem to portray any real emotional depth. She does not seem to care about controlling her behavior, nor does she care about consequences–when Nell wants something, she will stop at nothing to get it. We at one point learn that Nell likely killed her own parents by setting a fire. Nell is able to manipulate situations to her advantage–at one point actively pretending that Jed forced his way into the room with malicious intent. As readers, we are made aware of the internal monologues of the other characters, but with Nell we only really see her externally–her thoughts are not conveyed in the same way, and there is a clear disconnect with her appearance and who she is on the inside.
The movie version of Nell in Don’t Bother to Knock is presented as more mentally unstable. She consistently confuses who Jed is with a man from her past who died (a narrative not in the book). It seems as though losing this former lover sent Nell into a mental breakdown–and at the end of the movie she is seen attempting suicide (though she does not go through with it). Although Nell is cruel to the child in both the book and movie versions, Marilyn Monroe’s portrayal of Nell makes it appear as though she is not completely coherent, whereas in the novel Nell is seemingly aware of reality.
I do wonder why the movie changed the character of Nell in this way. Was it because the writers and producers did not think the audience would react well to how Charlotte Armstrong originally wrote the character? Perhaps it seemed more believable that a woman undergo a mental breakdown because of a dead lover, rather than be sociopathic.